Dawn Wooten, left, a nurse at Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, speaks at a Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020 news conference in Atlanta protesting conditions at the immigration jail. Wooten says authorities denied COVID-19 tests to immigrants, performed questionable hysterectomies and shredded records in a complaint filed to the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy) US Immigration Detention Georgia
Dawn Wooten, left, a nurse at Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, speaks at a Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020 news conference in Atlanta protesting conditions at the immigration jail. Wooten says authorities denied COVID-19 tests to immigrants, performed questionable hysterectomies and shredded records in a complaint filed to the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

More than 170 members of Congress have also called for an official investigation into allegations a Georgia ICE facility was responsible for medical neglect and a high rate of nonconsensual hysterectomies.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is launching an investigation into an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Georgia, after a whistleblower reported that immigrant women detained there were being forced to undergo unnecessary gynecological procedures without their consent.

Dawn Wooten, a registered nurse, leveled accusations against Irwin County Detention Center—a private detention center run by LaSalle Corrections—saying it medically neglected detainees, had a high rate of nonconsensual hysterectomies, and was out of compliance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for containing the coronavirus. The complaint was filed this week with the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) by Project South and other immigrant and human rights advocacy groups.

Wooten told Law and Crime that immigrant women were sent to a particular gynecologist at Irwin County Hospital, who performed a high number of hysterectomies on the detainees. “Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy—just about everybody,” Wooten said, noting that “everybody’s uterus cannot be that bad.”

The hospital itself, the New York Times reports, was named in a federal lawsuit alleging false Medicare and Medicaid claims that resulted in overpayments. The facility settled in 2015 and the defendants, including several doctors, had to repay $525,000 to the federal government.

Dr. Ada Rivera, ICE Health Services Corps’ medical director, promised a full inquiry into the allegations was forthcoming but said the agency “vehemently disputes the implication that detainees are used for experimental medical procedures.” ICE characterized the accusations as “anonymous, unproven allegations.”

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More than 170 members of Congress, including the popular, progressive group of young lawmakers known as “The Squad,” also want an official review of the allegations. Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley called for “a Congressional investigation into these heinous human rights abuses immediately,” while Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib tweeted in support of abolishing ICE. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also tweeted “the United States has engaged in a program of mass human rights violations targeting immigrants,” and repeated past calls to end the agency.  

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also released a statement on the allegations: “If true, the appalling conditions described in the whistleblower complaint – including allegations of mass hysterectomies being performed on vulnerable immigrant women – are a staggering abuse of human rights,” 

The US has a history of using forced sterilization against poor people, people of color, and people with disabilities that stretched back over a century, with Indiana passing the world’s first eugenics sterilization law in 1907. As other states followed suit, the laws became models for Nazi Germany, and some stayed on the books as late as the 1980s, with North Carolina mostly sterilizing Black women and California disproportionately targeting people of Mexican descent. Some historians see parallels between the not-too-distant past and the recent accusations.

“There needs to be an investigation of who’s been mistreated, how they’ve been mistreated, and whether or not there’s anything to this, because it is extremely, extremely serious,” Alan Kraut, an immigration historian and professor at American University, told CNN.

In an interview on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal said she’d been in touch with several immigration attorneys of women at the Irwin County Detention Center, and they told her their clients reported similar experiences. The women had allegedly been told they had ovarian cysts and were sent to the doctor to have them drained. The medical staff did not speak Spanish or have translators to explain what was being done, and they’d awaken from the procedure having had partial or full hysterectomies. 

Jayapal expected the actual number of victims to be greater than the 17-18 cases the attorneys referred her to.

“Many of the people who are in immigration detention are pro se, they are completely unrepresented, they don’t have attorneys. I think if it’s happening to these individuals that have attorneys and we’re just finding out about it, it is possible that this is even larger than the 17 or 18 we know of,” Jayapal said. 

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Jayapal and other Democrats are also calling on ICE to immediately stop deporting women who may be part of this investigation. Some have already been deported. One detainee, Pauline Binam, said part of her fallopian tube had been removed without her informed consent. Binam had boarded a plane to be deported Wednesday morning, but Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Jayapal rushed to contact ICE. Binam was removed from the plane before take-off.

“We need her to testify,” Jayapal told the New York Times. “This story sends a chill through any woman.”

The whistleblower, Wooten, also alleged that the facility has not complied with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for containing the spread of coronavirus. According to government data, 43 detainees there have tested positive for the virus, and Wooten said she herself was told to come to work despite displaying COVID-19-like symptoms. Wooten quarantined per doctor’s orders but was later reprimanded, and her hours at Irwin were slashed. She believes she was punished “because I raised questions.” “Now I’m a target,” Wooten said at a press conference in Atlanta Tuesday. “But I’ll take a target any day to do what’s right [rather than] sit and be a part of what’s inhumane.”

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